What Is Fantasy Fiction (Part 2)

Fantasy, the Imagination, and Spirituality

Any fiction has to connect with its readers and relate to their lives in some way, while also stretching beyond the banal. We don’t read stories where we can’t identify with the characters, but at the same time we don’t read stories that are exactly like ordinary life. We want to engage both sympathy and imagination. The reader wants to feel a connection and kinship with the characters and to imagine being the characters, but in doing so wants to experience things that are outside of – and more interesting and exciting than – what he goes through day to day. In fantasy, the stretching is accomplished primarily although not exclusively through the fantasy elements. Connection with the readers? That’s accomplished, as always, by good writing.

Another common but not quite universal attribute of fantasy fiction is that a lot of it has a theme or sub-theme that’s religious or moral or spiritual in nature. By this I don’t mean that the theme conforms to the doctrines of any particular religion (although that’s possible; C.S. Lewis’ fantasy fiction, for example, was strongly Christian, while Marian Zimmer Bradley wrote fantasy with a Wiccan theme). I mean that it involves questions that religion attempts to answer, such as:

  • What is the ultimate nature of man/the universe/the divine?
  • What should the goal of a human life be?
  • What is the right choice of action in any particular circumstance?

Within the context of the fantasy story, questions like these, great or small, are often posed and sometimes answered, the answers always being of a mythic rather than a straightforward character. That is, they are not literal statements but metaphors for truths that can’t be put into words, impacting our understanding on a non-verbal level – tricky when one’s artistic medium is entirely verbal, but by no means impossible as every poet knows. It’s a type of knowing that arises from mythos, not from logos.

(One may also observe that the pitfalls of any type or genre of writing, where it can easily go wrong, arise from the same source as its defining characteristics. One such pitfall for fantasy is the danger of becoming “preachy” and giving the reader the feel of being lectured. That’s a common mark of bad fantasy and it’s something to be aware of and avoid.)

Sub-Genres of Fantasy

Fantasy is a broad enough genre that several sub-genres exist. First one may distinguish between so-called “high” and “low” fantasy. Low fantasy is mostly another sort of story (any kind, really) but contains a few fantasy elements, such as minor magical or psychic ability on the part of one or more of the characters, interaction with a ghost or demon or angel or elf or some such creature, the impact on the characters of a talisman, etc. High fantasy is a story in which the fantasy elements are more pronounced, typically taking place in an alternate world, and pervasive throughout that world.

(Side note: I’ve seen low fantasy characterized as being set in the “real world,” while high fantasy is set in a “fantasy world.” While that may be a good rule of thumb, I don’t believe it’s the important distinction here; one may have a high fantasy as I’m using this phrase that’s located in the real, contemporary world – actually, my own Star Mages trilogy is exactly that, as is the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling – or a work of low fantasy set in an alternate world, provided the alternate world is mostly non-fantastic. A work of alternate history, such as Harry Turtledove often writes, is set in an alternate world but it is not necessarily high fantasy and most of Turtledove’s alternate history isn’t fantasy at all.)

An example of low fantasy is Stephen King’s Firestarter, which is basically a thriller/horror story with psychic powers as part of the plot and character development, while Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is high fantasy.

Another distinction is between the sub-genre of contemporary fantasy and – well, fantasy that isn’t contemporary. While the classic fantasy template has the story take place in an alternate world or in the legendary past, contemporary fantasy is located in the world we know with fantasy elements added. In contemporary fantasy we have all of the technology and cultural features that exist in modern life, while non-contemporary fantasy is often set in an ancient or medieval milieu. There are a number of sub-sub-genres of contemporary fantasy, such as urban fantasy and paranormal romance, which I won’t go into beyond mentioning they exist. One can pigeonhole a story to the point where the main goal – to tell a good story well – is lost, in my opinion, and anyway it’s better to classify a story after the fact. (I’ve never been a believer in using rigid formulas for writing.)

The main point in even acknowledging the different sub-genres of fantasy, other than being able to choose an appropriate genre designation when indie publishing at Amazon or another outlet, is to show the range of story that can contain fantasy elements. It’s wide open. The technological sophistication of the society of the story can run from the Stone Age to science fiction, and the prevalence of fantasy elements can range from minor to all-pervading. Fantasy provides the writer with a varied canvas and pallete and can’t be simplified to a single formulaic template.

Can Fantasy Be a Crossover?

Of course it can. Why not? Writing from any genre can appeal to an audience outside that genre’s usual readers, if it’s good writing, not overly formulaic, and of broad general appeal – in other words, if it’s a good story told well.

Some fantasy titles have already become crossover books. One example is Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon, a retelling of the Arthurian legends from a perspective that was both feminist and Pagan. This was a sufficiently original concept and execution that it appealed to a lot of readers who don’t normally read a lot of fantasy. (Also, it may be that because it’s old and respectable, many don’t consider the Arthurian legends to be fantasy stories. They are.)

There are a number of other fantasy authors whose books have crossover potential, and also there are some fantasy titles that already do straddle the border between fantasy and some other genre. Much of Stephen King’s writing falls into this latter category.

Since fantasy is defined in such a broad way – any story containing fantastic or mythic elements – it’s particularly likely to achieve crossover, compared for example to romance, mystery, or thriller, all of which are defined more narrowly. The range of stories that could be called “fantasy” is simply enormous, and if one avoids formulaic writing and strives for originality, solid characterization, strong plot, and all those other good things that characterize good storytelling, the potential appeal is equally huge.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “What Is Fantasy Fiction (Part 2)

  1. pyrophobicburner

    I don’t quite understand the ‘high’ vs. ‘low’ distinction, although if the language is too flowery for me to stand, I take it as a sign of ‘high’ fantasy, and possibly badly written, at that. (I don’t stick around long enough to be sure.) I recognize what I like and don’t like, and as a reader, I guess that’s the most important distinction, although it makes discussing something another person hasn’t read more difficult at times.

    • The distinction doesn’t have anything to do with the language. It has to do with how much fantasy is included in the story. If it’s mostly normal-reality with only a little fantasy stuff included, that’s what I’m calling low fantasy, but if there’s magic out the yazoo and fantastic creatures all over the place, I’m calling that high fantasy.

      Actually I admit I’ve played a little loose with the usual designations. High fantasy has in the past sometimes referred to any fantasy that takes place in an alternate world, while low fantasy takes place in our own world. I don’t think that’s as useful a distinction, though.

      I know what you mean about “flower language.” I try to avoid that myself in my writing. People talk to their own hearing like normal people.

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